Learned Helplessness in Children

A number of circumstances and conditions can predispose children to the damaging effects of repeated failure experiences and learned helplessness.

Possibly the most unfortunate consequence of the cumulative effects of these conditions on children is the eventual development of the belief that they are simply not able to perform up to the standards of their parents and teachers. Children who have never experienced success in school are afraid to challenge themselves academically. They do not put in the required effort, and give up before even making an attempt to succeed. These students develop self-defeating strategies that eventually lead to the very failures that they are attempting to avoid. After striving for unattainable goals and procrastinating, they become depressed and angry. Worse still, this sense of helplessness is sometimes influenced in a number of subtle ways by the behavior of parents and teachers, who unwittingly participate in the expectation that the child is not going to do well.

According to Eklund et al. (2015), learned helplessness creates three basic shortfalls in the child: cognitive, emotional, and motivational, thus destroying the child’s aspiration to learn. Once a child ceases to have the motivation to learn, it becomes even harder to engage him/her to attempt to understand something new, as they fall into becoming a helpless learner. To be clear, the child does not intentionally try to behave this way, but feels as though there is no other option, and that failure is inevitable. Once these practices are repeated and reinforced, the child builds an inappropriate response to learning, which becomes a habit. The child will continue in this way throughout his/her educational career, until something changes.

Red Flags of Learned Helplessness

  • Laying blame on the teacher:
    • “The teacher is unfair and picks on me, so I’m not going to do any of her assignments”
    • “It’s the teacher’s fault that I didn’t do well on the test because she didn’t remind me it was today, and I guessed at most of the items”
  • Making excuses for bad behavior to hide insecurities about struggling to learn:
    • “The hallway was too crowded, and when I got to the cafeteria there was no dessert left, so I trashed my tray and got sent to the office instead of going to my next class which, by the way, is the one where I don’t learn anything anyway.”
  • Exhibiting an “I give up” attitude:
    • “School is just boring, the work is dumb, the assignments are too hard (or too easy), and the teacher never checks homework anyway, except when she knows I don’t have it done.”
  • Pulling away or refusing to communicate to avoid confrontation:
    • “What happened in school today?” “I don’t want to talk about it.”
  • Children who feel judged instead of supported:
    • “My parents worry so much about my homework and school work. Why bother worrying about it myself?”
    • “I often feel like my parents won’t value me if I’m not as successful as they would like.”
    • “My parents say I can be anything I like, but deep down I feel they won’t approve of me unless I pursue a profession they admire.”

The progression from learning challenges to school failure looks like this: (note that school failure can initiate a spiral of further discouragement and reinforcement of self-defeating beliefs).

Learning Challenges  >  Lack of Success  >  Discouragement  >  Fixed Mindset  >  Learned Helplessness  >  School Failure

School failure is not, of course, the end of the story. Rather, it can be the beginning of a cascade of negative life outcomes such as problem drinking, mental health problems, criminal activity, and employment problems. While such outcomes are beyond the scope of this course, they do highlight the importance of intervening early with children who are at risk for school failure.

The “Cycle of Success,” by contrast, would proceed as follows:

Learning Abilities  >  Success  >  Encouragement  >  Growth Mindset  >  Self Confidence  >  School Success

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Course excerpt from:

Motivating Children to LearnMotivating Children to Learn is a 4-hour online continuing education (CE/CEU) course that provides strategies and activities to help children overcome their academic and social challenges.

This course describes the various challenges that can sidetrack children in their developmental and educational processes, leaving them with a sense of discouragement and helplessness. Such challenges include learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, behavior disorders, and executive functioning deficits. Left unchecked, these difficulties can cause children to develop the idea that they are not capable of success in school, precipitating a downward spiral of poor self-esteem and – eventually – school failure.

The good news is that much better outcomes can result when parents, teachers, and therapists engage children in strategies and activities that help them overcome their discouragement and develop their innate intelligence and strengths, resulting in a growth mindset and a love of learning. Detailed in this course are multiple strategies and techniques that can lead to these positive outcomes. Course #40-44 | 2018 | 77 pages | 25 posttest questions

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Our online courses provide instant access to the course materials (PDF download) and CE test. Successful completion of the online CE test (80% required to pass, 3 chances to take) and course evaluation are required to earn a certificate of completion. Click here to learn more. Have a question? Contact us. We’re here to help!

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